Recently I fell into a discussion of the Rebellion of Boudicca (AD 60-61, see Tacitus) - a time and a place where trained and disciplined (Roman) legions triumphed over the horde (Britons). In this day and in our culture one can’t help but to reach to Starcraft’s Zergling Rush for edgy (albeit simplistic) analogies. The trouble with zergs is that while long among us in MMOs, their new presence is filled with energy and insufficient cunning…
The urban dictionary describes the general form of zerging thusly:
1. zerging n. Using massive amounts of weak, or generic units, to attack an enemy…
In the early days, Richard noted, “zerging” was called many things including “flooding” and “rushing.” More recently, zerg culture has bootstrapped itself into more elaborate social connotations, e.g. “Uberguilds” and the shifting alliances that underlie large PvP worlds. Though organization implies protocols and norms, to date these systems in our worlds seem less Roman in discipline and more Briton with a fullness of tribal bluster and dance. The Wikipedia suggests these textured nuances of zergs, here:
...analogous to the human wave attack in real-world ground warfare, in which overwhelming numbers of troops are sent at the enemy. Zerging in MMORPGs carries the connotation of a disorganized attack that relies upon superior numbers and levels to win. It is analogous to the Zergling Rush from Starcraft. A body of players or army involved in a zerg is collectively referred to as a "zerg", while a player who participates in zerging (is part of the zerg) is often called a Zergling…
To the casual observer, zerging may seem a form of virtualized hooliganism. Yet, it might also be seen as a natural consequence of the (arguable) first strategy (above all others) of good gamers: test the boundaries of your world, its rules, discover its patterns, and then pwn! them. Zergs, by instinct, try to stretch the concept of the group to its natural conclusion: bigger is badder, and badder is a safer griffon upon from to throttle loot from poor souls. Besides, very large zergs have an epic feel… or at least a colorful spread of color and character – as far as they eye can see - between the lagged screen refreshes, that is.
The risk of zergs is that at times, in some places, they push boundaries. Push too far they may seem exploitive:
A: Exploitation is defined as abusing a weakness or anomaly in the game system… with the intention of profiting from them in some manner.
But all games, in the end, demand that players push their world to see what drops out, to learn the technique and the wily ways of the place they are transiting. Then they ask players to efficiently execute on what they have learned. That’s entertainment. In fact, one might argue that the hallmark of a good gamer, as compared to a non-gamer who games, might be stated thusly: the gamer knows how to efficiently approach and parse a new world, where the non-gamer doesn’t. Part of that process involves knowing where to push.
Zerging can be an act of pushing that generates new excitement for its participants. However, not all content created through pushing is benign – MMORPGs are systems balanced between competing forces: players, technical constraints, game design, social habits. En masse zerg performances introduce stresses that tip the balance. Just as real world soccer matches aren’t designed with siege-craft in mind, nor are PvE or PvP sub-games typically designed to handle swarming attacks. A good example of this is that the meaning of zerg is often characterized not by absolute numbers, but by the differential between the encounter design and the numbers of players participating (from here):
In general, any army that is perceived as "too big" for the challenge it is undertaking can be called a zerg. Instance zerging is a very common tactic in World of Warcraft, wherein 10 players will clear out a 5 man instance dungeon… a 10 man group can complete the dungeon and obtain good loot very easily… Despite its effectiveness, zerging is generally considered unsporting...
The critical subtlety here, is that, a zerg is relative to the design of that place in the world.
Interestingly in StarCraft, “going zerg” is a strategic choice – a calculated option. It embodies well defined “moves” and well analyzed trade-offs, milestones, metrics (e.g. from Raptor, June 2004):
The Hydra-Lurk is considered “new school,” even though it has been around since the earliest days of Broodwars. However, the reason it is called “new school” is because it is the most recent in a world of Zerg strategical theory. Many Zerg players have wondered “Is it possible to beat the infamous Muta-Ling strategy without going Muta-Ling yourself… And this is where the Hydra-Lurk came in…In theory, the Hydra-Lurk should be superb…Starcraft is really like a game of chess. In the beginning, each player has a few builds or “opening” memorized, and they will react to each other in a way that will ultimately determine the course of the rest of the game. In the mid game, the actual action and battles take place as each player jockeys for a better position and attempts to maximize force advantages in preperation for the end game. In the end game… a player will try and use what he has left for a final drive against his enemy. If someone is at an obvious disadvantage, he will try and turtle to the best of his ability to try and force a “stalemate.”
This StarCraft experience is in contrast to that of the MMORPG, where zergs have taken on a quality of a sloppy and disorganized melodrama - and potential frittered away. Below are July 2004 forum comments on DAOC on this point:
…the experience in RvR certainly has taken on a different feel - the lay of the land is much more strategic, with choke points etc. It offers a lot of opportunity for tactics and strategy. However, generally the only people who get to do that are the leaders of the Zerg. Which is where the game has headed - if you're not in a Zerg, by and large, you're out of luck. The game has gone from 90% Gank Group vs Gank Group to about 10%, with the rest taken up by Zergs and Keep Taking.
In MMORPGs, zergs often connote overwhelming numbers and a pointless (or worse) experience for the many… not unlike the Boudicca Rebellion.
The downside of large-scale PvP zerging in MMORPGs is that as a play style it
A.) discourages casual play
B.) stresses other world design elements
C.) is unbalanced
With respect to (A.), casual players seem to find it more difficult to integrate themselves within the Uberguild networks that frame large zergs. Beyond structural barriers such as level and character requirements – organization and participation overheads associated with these events can be daunting to occasional players. With respect to (B.) large zergs establish a play style that doesn’t integrate well with the world design (nor, arguably, with its technical foundations). For example, witness the development of dedicated RvR and Raid zones and promised “zerg instances,” these suggest the need to isolate the zerg outlet from the rest of the machinery of the world.
Finally, it is (C.) that feels to be the most troublesome component of zergs. Simply stated, most players don’t like playing bit parts in an epic drama. E.g., this example with capturing and holding castle keeps in DAOC:
But - I'm sorry to say - Keep taking is pretty dull for me at least - once you've taken a few towers and a keep with a decent-sized Zerg - bleh! Plus - this has made playing a melee character pretty tough in the game - if you're not a stealther/ranged caster you're out of luck. You spend a lot of time defending keeps and you get to twiddle your thumbs if you're a melee person.
Players want to feel important, some occasionally may even want to feel heroic. Regardless of the nuance, play and fun is ultimately measured in terms of the individual. So far MMORPGs have more or less have extended this play experience successfully to small groups, though not without controversy (content rationing, why only the primitive Tanker-Nuker-Mezzer-Healer group template?). Online games (esp. arena games) have done well to extend team sizes, though arguably they bump hard against the limits on player sophistication and interest in team-work.
True, many worlds function well with occasional large events such as raids and GM events, etc.. Even there, however, zergs as a play staple (vs. an occasional expression of the madness of crowds) is dubious: they are fickle experiences built of “some great moments but long half hours (ref. Wagner).”
Designing worlds around zergs may be inherently unbalancing to the remainder of our worlds – as least as we, the industry, the players, has conceptualized of how these worlds should work now. Looking back to StarCraft we may see this tension by analogy (Tom Cadwell):
Player-Time Imbalances…Although the Zerg race units are more or less balanced by cost compared to other races, they are much easier to produce and use in terms of player time. In large part due to this characteristic, the Zerg race was the dominant race in tournaments and competitions for roughly 6 months following Starcraft's release.
There is at least one vision (among many) about the vast and future zerg in MMORPGs: more AI cloaked by the ghost of StarCraft- a place where players are leaders and the AI plays the cunningly wicked red-shirts: no poor sod need apply to play the fodder Hydralisks. A world where at the end of each day, a player, some player may ask:
King Henry V: I tell thee truly, herald, I know not if the day be ours or no.
Montjoy: The day is yours.